Discoveries continue at Lincoln cemetery

Discoveries continue at Lincoln cemetery

James Walker, who sold his Sprague Avenue lot to Crescent Properties, scrapes over the area where dark discolorations in the soil could indicate a burial site. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

LINCOLN – A dark rectangle discovered in the soil at a Lincoln home construction site on Monday could have serious implications for the future of the project at the corner of Sprague Avenue and River Road.

State archeologists became involved in April after the town’s building official was notified that part of a limestone grave marker was spotted within the construction site, which is adjacent to Lincoln’s Historic Cemetery No. 24. Charles and Cynthia Belshe of Crescent Properties are developing a home on the land, and must now await word from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission on how to proceed.

State laws governing cemeteries mandate that no excavation happen within 25 feet of a historic cemetery. If an unmarked cemetery or human skeletal material is found, the property owner must undertake an archaeological investigation to determine the true boundaries of the cemetery.

The state does not have a team of archaeologists to investigate cases, so it is the property owner’s responsibility to hire its own private archaeologist to identify the locations of potential burial sites and inform the state. In this case, the developer has teamed up with Cultural Resource Specialists, and has hired the seller of the land, James Walker, to excavate the site.

On Monday, Walker began scraping his former property using a backhoe to remove layers of soil as archaeologists looked on. Alan Strauss, director of CRS, said he was looking for discolorations in the subsoil, which would reveal whether or not the property had ever been excavated – for graves or otherwise.

“Once you open up the B-Horizon soil, if there is anything here it would be revealed. You cannot dig into this kind of soil without leaving behind evidence,” he told The Breeze.

At the back left corner of the construction zone, a darker rectangular shape began to take form in the soil, indicating it has been disturbed. Neighbors say the headstone base was discovered near the stain.

“Every single time we find a grave marker it looks like that,” said Ken Postle, cemetery coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Historical Society.

Strauss said the spot is generally the right size and shape to be a burial site, with the exception of one irregularly shaped portion.

“This part is definitely suspicious,” he said. “It is definitely a man-made intrusion … the lines are too defined not to be. You’re not going to find anything in nature that is a complete square like that.”

Strauss said the mark is “the only possible item of concern on the entire property,” though neighbors contest his claim, saying the nearby cemetery once extended into the current development site. Resident Hla Arabian was raised nearby, and recalls there being many more grave markers in the past.

Though property owner Charles Belshe was on the site Monday, he declined comment.

Referred to as the Austin/Thayer/Gorton Lot, the Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission lists about 100 burials, with 57 inscriptions and 15 fieldstones, in Cemetery 24. Today, there are roughly 30 to 40 stones visible in the cemetery.

A commission volunteer who visited the site in 1995 wrote that stones showed signs of being moved and noted that, “the most disturbing part of this lot is that virtually all members of the Keane and Whipple families mentioned in earlier surveys have their stones missing from the current surveys. Their whereabouts are unknown at this time.”

Postle said he believes the missing graves could be in the adjacent lot scheduled for development. It’s rumored that some stone markers may have been plowed over by a past property owner to make way for a vegetable garden, and that dirt was piled on the site during construction of the nearby Lonsdale Elementary School.

“The common denominator is burials,” said Postle. “I guarantee there were people buried within the 25-foot zone. If this is a common lot, it wouldn’t surprise me to see people buried all over it without markers.”

Postle said it is not his intention to keep someone from building, but to find the path between modernity and history.

“I’m honestly hoping they don’t find anything. It’s not another feather in my cap. I do this because I want to educate the public on what’s there and save as many of these places as possible."

Comments

Thank you to the Valley Breeze for another great article on this development project in Lincoln...Thank you also to the many neighbors, officials and onlookers who have questioned why the State allowed the current and former owners to run the archaeological excavation and why the Historical Society who raised concerns were not notified of the time and place of this action...
Why was the base that was found onsite removed from the site and tossed to the side?
Why was nobody carefully examining the many possible field stone markers being unceremoniously dumped in piles by the excavator?
How many other possible bases or stone markers may have already been scraped away by the excavations into dirt piles?
When will someone in political office at the Town or State level go on record to demand that only properly trained folk, with no conflicts of interest operate and perform these excavations?
If the intent was to determine a possible line of burials, why didn't anyone go directly next to what has been found and excavate further into the grass at left to see whether the found marker was part of a line?
The Historical Society is not trying to hinder development-There are many folk in the Valley who have cemeteries on their homesteads or properties that maintain the dignity and reverence of the site without mayhem or intrusion-Why would we oppose someone else doing the same?
We simply want to preserve and protect what folk expected future generations to do, which is maintain their resting places-Several cemeteries in the Town of Lincoln have been lost to development already-That is why we have the common sense laws we do-Who will step up to honor their ethical and moral intent? The picture shows the former owner poking at what only the trained archeologist should have been touching during the survey-Really?

The archaeology at the Sprague Lot was done under RIHPHC state permit. All of the excavations were supervised by a qualified state approved archaeologist. Only those portions of the area slated for ground disturbance were within the scope of work. Only one possible grave shaft was identified. NO other burial features were found on the project area.
CRS of New England

Considering the states 25 ft rule I would think that this lot would be un-buildable. I arrived at the cemetery as the “archaeological scrape was concluding and asked the archaeologist about the 30 or so missing recorded burials , and he said they were only concerned with the one burial shaft that they had found. if I was the new owner I would ask for my money back! why would anyone want to build a house on top of a cemetery ?